Bette stood at the counter, stretching out her aching calf muscles, stiff from the lengthy drive. A weekend with her sister and her family was exhausting and the hours on the road made everything from the soles of her feet to the top of her headache if she stayed in one position for too long. The meagre relief of a covert stretch and a large mochachino would make up for the pleasant yet melancholic weekend with Rose, Harvey and Timmy.
She ordered, paid and moved to the right as she felt a pinch at the top of her right hamstring. Bette winced but kept moving. These days, she worried about becoming a miscellany of aches over being alone.
It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling; she told Rose whilst they watched Harvey and Timmy play catch in the garden. The last embers of the barbecue glowed slowly whilst plates sat there, heaped with wilted salad leaves and ragged lumps of meat and fat commas of condiments. It was a problem for tomorrow, as Bette and Rose sat there, finishing the last of the Pimms, holding court on Bette being single.
She heard her name being called as she blinked with surprise. As she took her drink out to the car, a removal van pulled out of the parking lot. Her house was perfect, she decided, but the terrible allure of change was inviting in its awfulness.
Bette saw her phone sparkling with notifications. A dating app which was attempting to get her interacting with it again, reminding her of all the single men she was missing out on. She stopped, cleared the notifications and deleted the app. There were dates, but they were half-lived experiences, boys wanting to be men and even then wanting to be a sibling over a parent. No one she thought to bring home. She put her phone away, lifted the lid of her cup and blew across the surface. Her eyes blurred and she knuckled the tears away, told herself she was tired and her back hurt from the drive. Endless piggybacks for Auntie Bette with Timmy.
The removal van was next door. Katie and Phil had moved back to her parents in Arizona. They had been pleasant but self-obsessed people, and although they tried to be friends, it was awkward and they gave up.
Bette recalled Phil’s hungry eyes when she mowed the front lawn in a bikini top and cut-offs. Katie catching him doing it, how she bent over like she had a slight stomach cramp and a wounded, informed look in her eye which Bette wondered was the motive for the move away.
Bette sucked down the last of the mochachino, which was too thick to do much with beyond sucking it through her teeth. A voodoo logic made her believe the sugar and caffeine would do something for her headache, but all she tasted was the granular bitterness of the coffee grounds and the metallic tang of the pain which had travelled up to do Feng Shui in her head.
He walked towards her, hand raised in greeting as he grinned at her. The smile was open, gregarious in a way which made something shift in her chest just as she realised she was meeting him with a headache and teeth stained with mochachino.
Her attention went to the pair of massive dogs walking with him, to heel, a jet black mastiff with a blunt, shark’s muzzle and a lean, lupine Shepherd with its tongue flapping from its mouth but with eyes alert for a challenge. Her head throbbed as she returned her attention to the man.
A wash of grey flooded over her vision as the heat of the day weighed down on her, and judging his black t-shirt clung to his chest and shoulders, it had left its mark on him too. He had wraparound sunglasses on, and a shaved head gleaming with oil. As he came closer, she saw the glitter of close-shaved blonde beard and his Roman nose, red with a tinge of sunburn.
Rose would have run inside and locked the door. Said he looked like a serial killer. Bette would have pointed out most serial killers looked like Phil or Harvey, her husband. She watched the flare of his quads against his dirty jeans and his battered but polished boots.
Bette swept her tongue over her teeth, almost gagged against the bitterness as her head throbbed with pain. She swallowed the mess over spitting in front of him.
And you wonder why you’re still single, she thought, as she gulped it down.
‘Hi,’ she said.
Her voice sounded faint to her ears.
‘Ma’am, thought I should introduce myself, seeing as we will be neighbours. I’m Jack,’ he gestured to the dogs either side of him,’This is Thorne and Rose.’
Bette snickered and got a fresh, disorientating burst of pain which whipped around her skull. The honeyed drawl of his accent intrigued her and when he took off his shades, she peered through the haze of pain, into a pair of piercing grey eyes. His smile flickered with concern.
‘Bette,’ she said.
He repeated her name, testing its pronunciation.
‘Well, it’s good to meet you. Thought I’d get the dogs to say hi. They’re obedient dogs, though, but didn’t want you to worry,’ he said.
She tried to smile, but her head was leaden and tight with pain. A sharp pain started at the nape and she staggered like something had stung her. Another wave of grey washed over her and took everything with it.
A nail is in my forehead, she thought, judging by the pain Bette felt as she came to. The skirting boards needed a good dusting as her vision came into focus.
‘Stay still’ Jack said.
She ran her tongue over her teeth, tasted the granules of coffee and dislodged one was between her front teeth. She sighed and rubbed her face.
‘Would you help me up?’ she said.
He smelled of salt and leather as his hand cupped the back of her head and she put some tentative weight on her left hand to support herself.
‘I’ve got you, just breathe,’ he said.
She sat up by degrees, at a pace which felt glacial, but Jack stayed with her. Sitting upright helped and the pressure in her back and neck had gone. Bette gasped with relief as Ben stood up and looked down at her.
‘Thank you, Jack. I hope this isn’t an omen of our being neighbours,’ she said.
He smiled and shook his head.
‘Nothing to it. Is there anyone I can call?’ he said.
She had slept on a couch at her sisters and the lengthy drive hadn’t helped. Bette went on, despite the pain and exhaustion which had dogged her steps since she left Rose. Jack helped her to her feet and she enjoyed holding onto his thick, vascular forearm. He lifted her with no effort.
She bumped into his chest, but he did not flinch. He chuckled before he stepped backwards. Bette looked into his eyes and fought the uncoiling warmth which started in the seat of her pelvis.
‘Are the dogs here?’
He smiled and shook his head.
‘No, they went back outside.’
He glanced outside, squinting against the late afternoon sun. Bette enjoyed the mingling alleviation of her pain and the tentative stabs of arousal Jack evoked with a gesture. She thanked him and said she would see him later.
‘I look forward to it,’ he said.
Bette watched him walk back to his house, his thick arms swinging by his sides as he strode back.
She ran a bath, hot and caked with Epsom salts. These were the points she enjoyed being alone, but when she closed her eyes, the profile of Jack as he looked outside came to her attention and rose gooseflesh as it insinuated itself into her attentions.
It was dark when she awoke, and the water was lukewarm. She got out of the tub, feeling clean and refreshed. Her stomach growled with hunger and she went with the adolescent impulse to order a pizza.
Bette brushed her teeth, then ordered the pie and made tea. The thought of coffee made her nauseous, and she was appreciating the fragile pleasure of feeling well again.
She was watching television when the doorbell rang.
Jack had changed into a clean t-shirt and jeans. His skin smelled of coal tar soap , masculine and warm.
‘I thought I’d look in on you,’ he said.
Bette flushed and considered the pyjamas and robe she had on.
‘Thank you. More embarrassed than anything serious. I was lucky you were here,’ she said.
‘I’m just glad you’re on your feet,’ he said.
Bette grinned and asked him if the dogs were here. He shook his head but she made a play of peeking past his shoulder.
‘I’ve got pizza coming, it’ll be too much for me to eat alone, so do you want to come in, and erm, have some?’
Jack’s smile widened into a grin which made the muscles in her thighs flutter.
‘Sure, I settled the dogs in for the night,’ he said.
Bette tittered and opened the door, asked him if he wanted a drink. Water was fine, and she remembered how she hadn’t cleaned up since before she left to go to Rose’s house.
‘Sorry about the mess. I don’t have the excuse of saying I’ve moved in,’ she said.
He chuckled as he sat down on the couch.
‘I don’t have a lot of stuff, so it’s easy to keep neat,’ he said.
They chatted as she boiled the kettle for a fresh cup of tea. He came from the Ozarks via a stint in the USMC, a tour of Afghanistan as a dog handler, working with a Belgian Malinois. Bette remembered the mastiff and smiled.
‘She’s your war buddy, that’s beautiful.
‘What about the Shepherd?’’
Jack’s eyes glanced downwards.
‘He was my buddy’s. Stayed in after I did my last tour, got taken out and so I applied to take his dog on,’ he said.
Bette swallowed, touched by the quiet way he shared this part of himself with her. She spoke, but the whistle of the kettle made her get up and make tea.
When she returned, he stood up, looking at her bookshelves. She leaned towards thrillers and true crime, and reference material for work, but he was scanning the spines with open interest.
‘Did you ever hear the John Waters quote?’ Bette said.
Her voice sounded pitched and nervous to her ears, but he smiled and looked at her as he shook his head.
‘If you go home with someone and they don’t have books on their shelves, don’t fuck them,’ she said.
Jack stared at her, hard and unflinching for a moment, which made her throat close before his facade cracked and he chuckled, putting his hand over his mouth as he closed his eyes with delight. Bette’s relief made her join in a moment later as she came towards him.
Hack’s chuckle was rough and deep, as they moved towards one another. Bette set her cup down on the coffee table as she wiped tears of laughter from her eyes.
They stared at one another, and Bette felt every inch of skin poised for something when he moved his face towards her, a hand raising with care to cup her cheek. She whimpered as he brushed them over hers, tentative and sweet as they closed her eyes.
Which was when the doorbell rang.
Jack folded his arms and chuckled as Bette swore under her breath and went to collect the pizza.
She took the box and gave the driver a ten-dollar tip to get him away without offending him. When she went back, Jack stood there with his hands by his sides.
‘I hope it didn’t get weird,’ he said.
She set the pizza box on the table and stood up.
‘I’m in my pyjamas and I’ve already passed out in front of you. Weird was two stops ago,’ she said.
He bought his hand to her cheek again as she gazed at him. A slight whimper escaped her lips as he ran his tongue over his lips. They moved towards one another, giving in to the tension between them.
They bumped noses and chins at first, kissing in orchestral stabs as they found accommodation with one another. Bette put his hands on her breasts through her pyjama top as she guided him to the couch. The silence and song had been wonderful, but an older part of her was in charge here.
It was hungry.
Jack pulled off his t-shirt and Bette sighed at the hard plates of muscle, the golden curls of hair on his chest and stomach and the tattoos on his upper arms. There were some pitted scars across his chest, flecks of white against his honeyed skin.
He took off his shoes and socks, then knelt before her on the couch. Lust made some men clumsy, but Jack descended to her like a wild, primal angel and she welcomed him.
Bette surrendered to his slow hands. He squeezed her ass, her hips and breasts with a firm, hungry and appreciative touch which made her moan against his mouth. She wrapped her lips around his tongue and suckled, which made him groan with pleasure. They wrestled like tide and shore, a muted crash of beautiful violence and all of it made in a spirit of honeyed, wild awareness.
Bette awoke to each caress, a rough magic which fed her hunger for touch even as it expanded to demand more of him.
His mouth kissed down her neck and a need to show him more of her raged through her as she pushed herself against him, stroking him as his washcloth tongue painted the canvas of her skin.
She slipped down the couch as Jack moved back onto his heels, straddling her as he unbuttoned her top and smoothed it from her shoulders. He grinned at her before he resumed exploring her chest with his lips and tongue. She tugged down her pyjama bottoms, grateful for having had a bath as his lips painted mandalas against her breasts. She went to speak, but he took one of her aching nipples in his mouth and suckled on it which made her moan with pleasure.
The suckling ache dived downwards and his mouth moved to suckle her other nipple. She kicked her pyjama bottoms off as he parted her thighs and moved between her quivering thighs, kissing the soft planes of her stomach. Each kiss was electric, making her moan soft vowel sounds into the night air like music.
Jack crouched between her open thighs and smiled, murmuring with appreciation.
Bette touched his face, drunk with appreciation as he dipped downwards, slipping his hands under her buttocks to take a grip as he licked between her labia in one delicious stroke which went all the way to the top of her head. She shuddered, relaxing into the febrile waves of joy his tongue unleashed within her.
His tongue danced against her tender flesh, vertical and horizontal strokes grazing fresh stars into her sky. When he rested the tip of his index finger at her pussy, she felt an insistent flood of arousal.
Bette fell back against the couch as she shuddered with wonder. Jack’s fingers splayed over the cradle of her pelvis as he pressed his tongue against her clit and suckled. She exploded after an eternal, perfect moment.
All she was went upwards and outwards, like a firework before returning to herself, familiar and alien with potential and sensation. Jack came up, his lips shining with her juices and she reached out, undoing his jeans as she reached for his cock. A moment of friction passed and he was inside her, pumping and urgent as she clutched him close and felt him tighten up within her. The raging burst of his release made her come again with him, breathing hard and wrapped around him as she cried out before they collapsed together, a damp tangle of limbs and sighs.
They laid there, waiting until they could speak again. He raised himself on his elbows and stroked her face. She smelled the faint mineral scent of herself on his fingers as she looked at him.
‘Hey neighbour,’ she said.
He smiled and looked towards the pizza box, raising an eyebrow. She grinned and pulled it towards them.
‘God yes, you read my mind,’ she said.
She stopped, realising she wasn’t in any pain. All the aches wiped clean and whatever recent ones , they were the kind which made a life with people in it palatable, even pleasurable.
The evening went on.
As the days passed, they walked his dogs and found quiet accommodation with one another. She still had her mornings with the birds, but she never lacked for company.